Transport Workers

Published in Dawn on June 6 2018

LONG-HAUL trucks, trailers and big intercity buses — the most noticeable vehicles on the roads, for their mammoth bodies and exotic art — are operated by workers who are the least visible and seldom talked about in Pakistan’s work sphere. It is their workplaces — roads, highways and motorways, bridges and infrastructure — that get all the attention. Policymakers plan projects, allocate resources, inaugurate sections of motorways; citizens complain of potholes, drive fast on newly built roads and dislike heavy vehicles plying the city’s arteries. All the while, transport workers — drivers, conductors, cleaners, helpers — go about their work shadowed by ‘informality’ and play their silent role in the economy.

The transport sector — road, rail, sea and air — is the fifth largest sector in terms of employment following agriculture, services, manufacturing and construction, and it employs six per cent of the total workforce. The sector is dominated by road transportation where workers struggle with low wages, long working hours, poor work conditions, occupational health hazards and lack of social protection. Highly informal and fragmented, the road transport sector is characterised by a weak regulatory framework and non-compliance with labour laws.

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Coal and Sunshine

Published in Dawn on May 10 2018

Fumes seep and spiral / Canaries in the coal mine / Chirp their last faint song. — haiku

HOW long will the demise of coal as an energy source take? When will the world finally pull out its miners from the dark, dingy and dangerous shafts? Not very soon, but not in the distant future either. The era of coal is waning. Developed countries are burning less coal for power generation and going for a mix of cleaner renewable energy and natural gas. China, too, is increasingly using solar energy and producing 60 per cent of the total solar cell manufactured in the world. In 2017, the world installed 98 gigawatts of new solar power projects as the cost of solar has fallen by 70pc since 2010.

Yet the demand for coal and the compulsion to extract it at great social cost is increasing in developing economies like Pakistan because coal is cheaper and exists in one’s own backyard. Social cost, in terms of loss of human lives and the mauling of the ecosystem, means little. Had human life and nature mattered, policymakers would have come up with regulations that respected and safeguarded the lives of workers and the surrounding habitat. Recently in two separate accidents of gas explosion and cave-in, at least 23 coal miners lost their lives in Balochistan’s coalfields.

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Illusion or Reality?

Published in Dawn on February 20 2018

THE low priority accorded to labour is reflected in the timing of the release of the Sindh Labour Policy 2018: a morsel of hope thrown to the people just before the next round of voting begins in July. So egalitarian is the document that you’d think had the government come up with it a few years earlier, the province might be treading the path towards an economy “where assets and incomes are distributed equally” and society is “free from exploitation” as the document spells out the aims of the policy.

The fact that we, the people, excel in surviving on the government’s promises and our own grit, and keep hoping for a better future, was validated by the sentiments of the employers’ and workers’ representatives who played a key role in developing the labour policy. The workers’ representatives are happy that the policy is ‘rights-based, participatory and inclusive’ and embodies the principles outlined in the country’s Constitution and international conventions.

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Undocumented

Published in Dawn on February 7 2018

ONCE upon a time, in one of the neighbourhoods in Karachi’s PECHS area where I grew up, there stood two or three houses in each row of the demarcated land; the remaining plots lay vacant. Children would roam around, play in open spaces, climb the trees and go back home.

Fifty years have gone by and practically no plot has remained without a structure. I do find children on the streets, only boys though, between nine and 17 years, playing cricket in the afternoon for an hour or less. All are domestic help; the kids get some respite from their chores while their masters take a siesta. They live in this neighbourhood but belong to the fringes of society. Compelled to leave their homes up in the north, they supplement the household income through child labour in the city.

Though visible, child labour remains undocumented. One census taker told me that children engaged in domestic service were not counted in the 2017 census as they were not members of the households they lived in and that there was no category to document their existence.

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Informal Economy

Published in Dawn on January 21 2018

THE 12th Five Year Plan (2018-23) — to be finalised soon — is based on a strategy that combines “inclusive growth with green development”. In recent years ‘inclusive growth’ — growth that benefits all segments of society — has replaced ‘poverty alleviation’ as a catchphrase in development planning. Everyone is talking about it, including the IMF, World Bank, ADB, ILO, national governments as well as those averse to the ‘growth’ paradigm. So let’s hope all players in the international and national arena mean it and are out to promote “equity, equality of opportunity, and protection in market and employment” as defined by the World Bank.

The time has come for Pakistan to address inequity and to tackle the informal economy, which is considered a barrier to inclusive growth as it excludes the majority of people from accessing opportunities of productive growth in the economic realm and deprives them of entitlements at work because of their informal status. In comparison, workers engaged in formal, registered, tax compliant businesses and units are legally covered for social protection.

The government cites its inability to bring thousands of small enterprises under the tax net, while the enterprises point to financial constraints as the main reason for remaining informal. However, both concede that formality is desirable for it benefits all stakeholders in the long run. Yet the goal remains elusive.

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CPEC and Labour

Published in Dawn on December 31 2017

WORK on the high-profile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor appears to be in full swing since implementation began in October 2015. While a lot has been disseminated on the quantum of investments, loans and repayments, and potential contribution to the country’s GDP, there is lack of information on a key player — labour: the workforce that is building, and will be building and running the projects under CPEC.

Human labour is mentioned but mostly as ‘employment generation’ or ‘creation of jobs’, and hence pushed out of sight in the CPEC narrative. Even the muted and cautious debate on CPEC as a manifestation of Chinese economic imperialism focuses on socio-cultural impacts and remains silent on labour. Questions raised by several scribes in the media have yet to be addressed by CPEC officials.

According to various estimates, CPEC projects would generate between 400,000 to 700,000 jobs during 2015-2030. Apart from numbers and general assumptions, there is hardly anything on labour in the discourse on CPEC. One can view the categories and number of jobs (mostly professional, technical, administrative, skilled) in advertisements on a local website, and also learn about efforts towards skilling of the labour force by the Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority, Punjab.

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Three-Way Dialogue

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2017

IN a society where the culture of dialogue is on the retreat and forces of intolerance ascendant at every level and in all relations, be it social, industrial, political or personal, you tend to hold on to small blessings such as the first Sindh Tripartite Labour Conference held seven years after the devolution of labour.

Aside from the pomp, its resemblance to a PPP jalsa and the two-page advertisement in newspapers, a couple of creditable aspects of the conference organised by the Sindh government need to be noted: it did have representation of the three partners in equal strength (state officials, labour activists and industrialists) and the organisers first gave the mike to labour and employers who blasted the state for its inefficiency and lack of political will and put forth a number of recommendations.

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